The U.S. Navy Is Re-Arming for Surface Warfare

An explosion of new anti-ship missiles

In 2016 the U.S. Navy possessed just one surface-launched anti-ship missile type — Boeing’s Harpoon, a munition that first entered the fleet in the 1970s.

Two years later, the Navy had added no fewer than five additional ASM types to the fleet and also updated the Harpoon. The fast expansion of the U.S. fleet’s ship-sinking arsenal pointed to escalating seaborne threats from Russia and China.

The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for the 2018-to-2019 fiscal year, “continues the work of the department to maximize as many munitions production lines as possible — particularly those specific to the high-end fight,” according to a U.S. Senate summary.

As part of the budget, the Navy was asking Congress for $27 million to being upgrading its Harpoons to the new Block II+ version , which adds GPS and a data-link allowing missile to switch targets mid-flight.

At the same time, the Navy was buying its second batch of new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles from Lockheed Martin, adding 35 of the new munitions to the initial batch of 25 it bought in 2017.

The Navy was also paying Raytheon to begin modifying old Tomahawk land-attack missiles for anti-ship missions — part of a $78-million account for the fiscal year. Raytheon was under contract to provide the first 32 Maritime Strike Tomahawks in 2020.

At the same time, the Navy had just tapped Raytheon and Norwegian firm Kongsberg to build, under an initial $15-million contract, their Naval Strike Missile for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships and future frigates.

Finally, the Navy was paying Raytheon to modify in-service SM-2 and SM-6 ship-launched surface-to-air missiles for the anti-ship role, as part of the service’s $490-million investment in the Standard Missile program for the fiscal year — a sum that also paid for 125 new missiles.

The explosion of new missile efforts represented a remarkable turnaround for the U.S. fleet. In early 2016 Robert Work, then the U.S. deputy defense secretary, warned of “a resurgent Russia and a rising China” on the high seas.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Work’s boss, laid out the argument. “We face competitors who are challenging us in the open ocean,” Carter said, “and we need to balance investment in those capabilities — advanced capabilities — in a way that we haven’t had to do for quite a while.”

During the Cold War, the Navy excelled at sinking enemy ships. It possessed what were, at the time, two of the world’s best anti-ship missiles — the Harpoon and a first-generation Tomahawk anti-ship missile.

With these two weapons, the U.S. Navy was prepared to engage Soviet warships if the Cold War had ever turned hot. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the U.S. fleet shifted its attention to land. It launched missile and air raids on Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya and Syria, among others. “The U.S. has been neglecting its anti-ship capabilities since at least the early 1990s,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World , said in 2016. Confident that […]

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